George Miller is now the frontrunner to win the Best Director Oscar for "Mad Max: Fury Road." Ever since our predictions center launched back in August last year, I have predicted that Miller would be nominated. Contenders have come and gone, but he has been a consistent presence in my top five. Then as the weeks rolled on, and Miller started amassing more and more laurels, I slowly moved him up to where he sits right now, in pole position.
I can’t remember a year in which there is so much delicious uncertainty for us pundits and film fans to endlessly ponder over. Even our Oscar experts (journalists from leading publications that cover this beat all year) are split between Miller, with eight experts in his camp, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("The Revanant") with four, Tom McCarthy ("Spotlight") with two and Adam McKay ("The Big Short") with one (surprise nominee Lenny Abrahamson ("Room") is the only contender currently out in the cold). That gives Miller leading odds of 11/8 to win Best Director on his first bid.
The DGA nominated four of the eventual five Oscar nominees (Inarritu, McCarthy, McKay and Miller). Ridley Scott contends at the guild for “The Martian” but was snubbed at the Oscars in favor of Abrahamson. Scott appears to be the safe bet when it comes to the DGA and our experts seem to agree, as seven out of 11 have thrown their support behind the beloved veteran.
However, if one of the other four nominees triumph when the guild bestows its Best Director prize on February 6, expect to the experts throw their support behind the newly minted frontrunner, as all but seven winners of Best Director at the DGA have repeated at the Oscars since 1950.
Until the DGA winner is announced, the clear Oscar frontrunner is Miller. Below, the top five reasons why he has the edge.
1. Miller and “Mad Max: Fury Road” are universally acclaimed
Miller is an admired and respected veteran auteur at the peak of a long and celebrated career, with acclaimed genre classics like the “Mad Max” franchise, “The Witches of Eastwick,” “Dead Calm,” “Babe” and “Happy Feet” on his resume as a writer, producer or director. And now he has proven that at 70 years of age, he can turn out what has been hailed as one of the best action films of all time.
"Mad Max: Fury Road" has landed on or near the top of hundreds of year-end top ten lists and has run the gamut of critics and guild awards over the last month. It is arguably the single most lauded film of the year overall, with nominations and wins across the board from almost every single critics organisation across the country.
Most notably, Miller himself has won Best Director from the Austin, Boston Online, Chicago, Broadcast, Denver, Detroit, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas City, London, Los Angeles, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Online, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Southeastern, Utah, Vancouver and Washington DC film critics.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” reaped two Golden Globe nominations (losing both Best Drama Picture and Best Director to “The Revenant”), seven BAFTA nominations, nine Australian Academy awards, and was named as one of the Top 10 Films by the American Film Institute, not to mention guild citations from the Producers Guild, Editors Guild, American Society of Cinematographers, Art Directors Guild, Cinema Audio Society, Costume Designers Guild, Makeup & Hairstyling Guild, Screen Actors Guild (for Best Stunt Ensemble) and the Visual Effects Society.
It has a staggering 97% approval rating (based on 334 reviews) at Rotten Tomatoes, which puts it in first place for the year, above rival films “Spotlight” (with 97% approval rating based on 195 reviews), “Room” (96%), “The Big Short (88%) and The Revenant (83%). It’s a similar story over at MetaCritic, where it has an impressive 89 out of 100, bested only by “Spotlight” with 95, and in front of other category rivals “Room” (86), “The Big Short” (81) and “The Revenant” (76).
It has been lauded not only for the technical achievements of its relentless action sequences, jaw-dropping stunt work and CGI-light physical visual effects, but also its unexpected emotional depth. Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) exalted in his review of the film that “Mad Max: Fury Road will leave you speechless, which couldn't be more appropriate. Words are not really the point when it comes to dealing with this barn-burner of a post-apocalyptic extravaganza in which sizzling, unsettling images are the order of the day,” while Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) acknowledged the film as a crowning achievement for the filmmaker, proclaiming it as an “[e]xtravagantly deranged, ear-splittingly cacophonous, and entirely over the top, George Miller has revived his Mad Max punk-western franchise as a bizarre convoy chase action-thriller in the post-apocalyptic desert.”
2. Widespread Academy support
"Mad Max: Fury Road" received 10 nominations from the Academy, second to “The Revenant” with 12 (those additional two nominations coming courtesy of the actors branch). Our experts foresee “Mad Max” winning six Oscars; Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects. It is also a contender in Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design (currently ranked third in both categories) and the big one, Best Picture, where it currently sits in fourth place behind “The Revenant,” “Spotlight” and “The Big Short.”
Support from all of the branches voting across the board is critical when working out who and what has the edge in categories that are too close to call or at the very least competitive (i.e. with no clear frontrunner).
In recent years, popular visual spectacles with large nomination hauls (i.e. widespread support) have done particularly well in the Best Director category. In 2013, Alfonso Cuaron claimed the Best Director prize for “Gravity” (which had a leading 10 nominations overall and converted seven of those into wins) over Best Picture winner "12 Years a Slave” (which had six nods in total). Similarly the year before, Ang Lee won Best Director for "Life of Pi,” which itself amassed 11 nominations (second only to “Lincoln” with 12) and four wins (the most for any film that year) and similarly had no acting nominations.
3. “Gold Watch” for Miller, not Scott
Much of Miller’s work to date as a filmmaker has been as a director, writer and/or producer in film and television, both in his native Australia and in the US. This year marks his first nomination for Best Director.
Until Oscar nominations were announced, many believed that another acclaimed veteran auteur, Ridley Scott, would win as a defacto lifetime achievement award. Scott’s work on “The Martian” has similarly been proclaimed as a crowning technical and artistic achievement from an influential filmmaker who is pushing eighty. With Scott out of the way, Miller is now front and center if academy voters are in the mood to reward a beloved veteran filmmaker with little Oscar hardware to show for a long and illustrious career.
In the last 15 years, veteran directors have fared remarkably well at the Oscars, whether they were long overdue for recognition (Roman Polanski for “The Pianist” in 2002, Lee for “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005 and Martin Scorsese for “The Departed” in 2006) or highly respected artists winning after a long run of successful and acclaimed films (Ron Howard for “A Beautiful Mind” in 2001, Peter Jackson for “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” in 2003 and Cuaron for “Gravity” in 2013).
Miller’s classic "Mad Max" franchise has never been honored by the academy. All three films garnered positive reviews upon their release, especially the 1982 sequel “The Road Warrior,” about which Roger Ebert said was “very skillful filmmaking; 'Mad Max 2' is a movie like no other.” However, the academy never nominated any of the three previous films in any category, despite the influence that “Mad Max,” “Mad Max: The Road Warrior” and even “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” have had on cinema over the last three decades, spawning a sub-genre of post-apocalyptic action extravaganzas and creating a cultural icon in its titular hero Max Rockatansky.
Now that the fourth and most acclaimed film in the franchise has reaped a whopping ten Oscar nods, the academy might finally acknowledge that not only is Miller overdue for the coveted top helmer prize, but Mad Max himself is owed an Oscar IOU as well.
4. Inarritu won last year
With 10 nods, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is second only to “The Revenant” with 12 nods. It is arguable then that similar widespread support in the academy for “The Revenant,” Inarritu is Miller’s main competition for Best Director.
But Inarritu won Best Director last year for "Birdman," which was also named Best Picture. Will Oscar voters be willing to hand Inarritu a second consecutive Oscar? History tells us that it is very rare for a director to win back to back, with only two helmers having achieved this feat in Oscar history: John Ford ("The Grapes of Wrath," 1940; "How Green Was My Valley," 1941) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz ("Letter to Three Wives," 1949; "All About Eve," 1950). This helps Miller and is a huge obstacle for Inarritu to overcome.
5. Miller is Oscar-friendly
It is not like Miller is an unknown or left-field fringe filmmaker with little credibility. Despite never having been nominated in the Best Director category, Miller has been to the Oscars before, having been nominated for Original Screenplay (along with the late Nick Enright) in 1993 for “Lorenzo’s Oil” (losing to “The Crying Game”), returning as a double nominee in 1996 as a producer and writer for “Babe” (“Braveheart” won Best Picture that year while “Sense and Sensibility” trumped Miller and co-writer and director Chris Noonan for Best Adapted Screenplay), and finally winning for Best Animated Feature in 2007 for “Happy Feet.”
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Photo Credits: Charlize Theron and George Miller; Warner Bros.